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Transcribing History

Transcribing History

Many documents in the Digital Library come from archival collections which contain letters, notes, telegrams, etc.  One of the goals of the Digital Library is to transcribe these handwritten documents so that they are more easily searchable and accessible to the public.  Transcription involves copying every letter, notation, and bit of punctuation into a machine-readable format.

It is important to remember that transcription (like history) is subjective. It involves problem-solving and decision-making. It is not an exact science. The transcriptions you see in the Digital Library are interpretations of the document by the transcriber. Misinterpretation could change the author’s original intended meaning. But the transcriptions in the Digital Library each accompany a high-quality digitized image of the original document. Both can be compared side-by-side, together yielding a useful and engaging learning experience.

Reading or transcribing unique archival materials can be challenging but will help to develop critical thinking and analysis skills necessary for different types of research. Learning to find, interpret, evaluate, and use primary sources will unlock access to witness firsthand accounts of history.

More on Primary Sources:

Guidelines on Primary Source Literacy from RBMS and SAA.

Using Primary Sources guide for teachers from the Library of Congress.

Transcription Tips from the National Archives.

Paleography: Reading Old Handwriting 1500-1800 from the UK National Archives.



Finding and Using Transcriptions in the Digital Library

You might not even realize transcriptions are helping you access history. When you search the Digital Library, your keywords are being searched for relevant matches among the available metadata for the item. This might include the title, author, and other information entered by the cataloger to describe the item (found in the More Information tab to the right of the Digital Library item viewer) – but also any words contained in the item itself. OCR (Optical character recognition) software can search machine-readable text like typewritten or printed documents, but cannot decipher handwritten manuscripts. Transcriptions in the Digital Library are included when you search All Fields.

If an item has been transcribed, it will be noted as such in the metadata under the Format field. You can narrow searches by selecting only transcribed materials with the search filters on the right side of the search results screen.

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To access the transcription, click the Download button on the bottom left of the Digital Library viewer screen, and you will see options to download a PDF or Microsoft Word DOC of the transcription.

Explore: Transcriptions of Note

Biography and Memoir


-- Diary of Patrick Hayes, aboard Asia, 1787. The journal account of 17-year-old Patrick Hayes, who traveled with his adoptive father Commodore John Barry (the father of the United States Navy) on a merchant expedition to China. See also the teachers guide, Journey Back in Time: 18th Century Practices & Modern Comparisons, developed around this journal.

-- S.A. Lane Autobiography. This 450-page autobiographical manuscript of Samuel Alanson Lane (1815-1905) offers a fascinating first person depiction of 19th-century American life by an average man. See also the online exhibit, History Between the Pages: The Life of Samuel A. Lane, for a contextual and visual presentation of this resource.

-- Recollections, "Account of my capture & time in Germany" by Arthur Evanson Glanville. From p. [1] Glanville wrote, "How I was taken prisoner, and some of my experiences in German hands. Captured May 27th 1918 at Chemin des Dames Repatriated December 3rd via Switzerland."



Famous Folks


-- Rules Minutes &c. of the Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, 1843, 1771-1793. This partial transcription, beginning on page 41, includes the invitation and acceptance of adopted member George Washington in 1782.

-- Letter, To: Rebecca Seton From: Ellizabeth Ann Seton, August 3, 1799. Transcribed letter from Catholic Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, SC (1774-1821) to her sister-in-law and confidante Rebecca Seton (1780-1804).

-- Letter, To: "My gentle unknown friend" From: Henry O. Nightingale, April 30, 1865. In this letter written from a Civil War hospital in Washington, D.C., the author laments the loss of President Abraham Lincoln and recalls meeting him and collecting his signature in his Autograph Book shortly before that fateful assassination on April 14, 1865.



Surprising Formats

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-- Letter, To: A. M. Thackara From: Ellie, January 10, 1880. This letter from Eleanor "Ellie" Sherman Thackara (1859 - 1915), daughter of Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman, to her future husband Alexander Montgomery "Mont" Thackara (1848–1937), displays a perfect example of a crossed (or cross-hatched) letter. To save on the costs of paper and postage, it was fairly common practice for the writer to reach the end of the paper, turn the paper perpendicular, and continue writing at a 90-degree angle over the first set of writing.

-- Letter, To: "My beloved daughter" From: E Hayes, July 6, 1819. This letter to Sarah Barry Hayes (1798-1821) from her mother Elizabeth Keen Hayes (1764-1853) also employs a paper and postage saving technique by having three different authors writing their own messages to the recipient. Sarah's younger brother Barry describes a sideshow-type attraction of a "mammouth child" of five years of age weighing 130 pounds. The third author, who appears to be a family friend, writes in Spanish, which is transcribed and also translated.

-- Selections from the musical recordings of the Philadelphia Ceili Group in the Digital Library have been transcribed from the audio files. Listen and read song lyrics from traditional Irish music including folk songs, ballads, and traditional sean-nós singing. The lyrics often contain references to historical events such as protests, rebellions, or political resistance movements, as well as emotional laments, love songs, and poetry.



Project Gutenberg 

Since 2012, the Digital Library has participated in the Distributed Proofreaders Project to release over 150 ebooks through Project Gutenberg. Read more about the project on the Falvey Memorial Library Blog and browse titles from our Digital Library in Project Gutenberg on our Zotero page.


Do History

Transcriptions in the Digital Library have come from students (either working from classroom assignments or as Falvey Memorial Library student employees), interns, staff, and volunteers. Sometimes we try to match the transcribers skills to the documents – Spanish language knowledge for example, or the specified knowledge of the NROTC student who transcribed an eighteenth-century  manuscript describing the contents and supplies on board the Continental Frigate Alliance from the Independence Seaport Museum’s Barry-Hayes Papers. Sometimes connections are discovered by chance – this same NROTC student, Rebecca Creehan Mataya, discovered the names of multiple men from her hometown while transcribing Autographs of C.S.A. prisoners taken during the Civil War and held at Johnsons Island.

Help us transcribe!

Ready to transcribe history? Contact Us to match you with a document that needs transcribing. 

Read our Standards for Transcription for instructions before getting started. 

Tips and Tricks

Context is everything! Read the whole sentence, or look for similar letters or words to compare.

Ask for a second opinion! If you're really stuck on a word, seek suggestions from others.

Search for secondary sources! Try Googling pieces of a word or a place to check results.


Further Reading

Thornton, Tamara Plakins. Handwriting in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

Decker, William Merrill. Epistolary Practices: Letter Writing in America Before Telecommunications. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Sperry, Kip. Reading Early American Handwriting. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc, 1998.



Curated by Rebecca Oviedo, Distinctive Collections Librarian/Archivist, August 2020. Special thanks to Michael Foight, Director of Distinctive Collections and Digital Engagement, for identifying transcriptions of note, and to the many transcribers who have contributed to the Digital Library past, present, and future!

The Digital Library provides access to thousands of digitized materials from Villanova University’s Special Collections and University Archives as well as dozens of digital donor and partner institutions.